Ancient Near Eastern Studies at BYU

On the advice of more experienced bloggers, I’m posting a (very slightly modified) comment I made on diahman’s post:

I’ve got to respond to (and disagree with) ben’s statement:

I would actually put up BYU’s new ANES degree (replacing the old NE Studies degree) against any undergrad Biblical studies degree at other schools.

I agree in nuce with ben’s other posts and the fruitful discussion regarding the creation of the Ancient Near Eastern Studies major. From all I can tell, it’s giving BYU religion professors whose ancient Near Eastern expertise has long lain dormant the chance to dust off the cobwebs and get back to their training. It’s great to see guys such as Kent Jackson, Dana Pike, and David Seely teaching things they were trained to do at world-class universities (UMich, UPenn, UMich, respectively) under the biggest names in the field (D.N. Freedman, Jeff Tigay).

What is more, this is not, as far as I can tell, a rehashing of the old degree, but contains some perhaps unexpected items, the most noteworthy being the innocuously named “ANES 363: Hebrew Bible Studies.” Its description promises to make some waves, however: “Current analytical methods used in academic study and interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.” This will include, if there is truth in advertising, the various types of criticisms most pertinent to Biblical Studies: Source Crit, Rhetorical Crit, Text Crit, etc. I wait with baited breath to see how this goes over. I’m guessing Seely will do a great job, but I’m anxious to see what kind of oversight, if any, will arise.

My reasons for begging to differ from ben, however, are a result of the problem of the Religion Department itself. Were this major offered primarily by, say, a Near Eastern Studies Department, two or three profoundly weak points could be resolved:

1) The Hebrew instruction could be taught by other than grad students, and in a much more robust way than currently done. (This point does not carry over to the Classics department, which has a much more rigorous stance.)

2) The core text classes should be offered by other than religion faculty. A BYU OT or NT class, in my experience and judging from the range of professors allowed to teach these, tends not to teach the text of the OT or NT in the way normally done in “Biblical Studies” programs. (I know there are exceptions.) But the bottom line is that an ANES major can be instructed in OT or NT by those not trained in OT or NT and . This is a fundamental flaw in a degree that purports to be ANES and not “Religious Education”.

3) This major would begin to rank with others nationwide if its faculty participated in the (national and international) field. I’ve heard rumors that one or two BYU rel profs have begun to start publishing in other (non-LDS) venues, but BYU is not known in the least for its OT/NT scholarship. Two factors seem to contribute to this isolation:

a) the Religion Department, which houses most of the core ANES faculty (judging by the web site’s list of “interested” professors and by those that have actually taught ANES core courses) allows LDS publications to count for rank advancement, so Ensign articles count, Deseret Book publications count, etc. These are much easier to churn out, with the result that no one takes the time and effort to engage in the wider field. Plus, LDS pubs are much more lucrative than Biblical Studies monographs, making the choice even easier.

and b): There is no member of the (again, Religion) faculty that engages in the mainstream of Biblical Studies. Perhaps for obvious reasons, BYU is not producing scholarship on the fundamental aspects of Biblical research. The professors, as far as I can tell, are relegated to “safe” areas: Dead Sea Scrolls/II-temple texts, Moabite language, etc. Why is there no BYU prof, for example, writing on the Doc Hypothesis, from any perspective? Why do our only LDS treatments of this topic come from non-specialists and amateurs?

Until such fundamental issues were addressed, I think I’d send my kid elsewhere for Biblical Studies. But there’s hope on the horizon.

What to do with BYU Religion

On analogy with a recent post by Clark Goble on M*, and in the spirit of Sweeps, I want to bring up an honest question, without being sarcastic, demeaning, or combative:

What is the purpose of Religious Education at BYU? I realize that they define it on their home page, but I specifically want to take a more functional look. Does having a faculty concerned with “preserving the doctrine” fill a role fundamentally different from that of the LDS Institutes? If so, what is that role? If not, why is Religious Ed housed at BYU and not in an adjacent institute? Is it only so that the University can require participation of its students in such a system? Although it seems that I can only seem to write about BYU and BYU religion, I’m really less interested in BYU RelEd and more interested in its role in the wider Church.

What say ye?